Health & Safety News

News added on 06.08.2019


Risk assessment

Need for health surveillance missed by employer

Three employees at a company that specialised in cliff stabilisation work were diagnosed with hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). What should the company have done to protect its workers from this debilitating condition?

The cliff stabilisation work carried out by the employees at Celtic Rock Services Ltd (CRS) entailed abseiling down the side of a cliff with tools such as rock drills and jack hammers and using the tools horizontally while working from ropes. The affected employees began to experience symptoms such as pins and needles and aching hands, in one case as early as 2000. Despite reporting their symptoms, no action was taken until an occupational nurse was employed in 2016, who identified the HAVS problem.

Exposure to vibration can lead to chronic ill health. Short-term effects, such as pins and needles, are usually immediately obvious, while long-term effects, including loss of strength, pain and inability to grip or hold things, can take longer to materialise, but they are permanent. For one of the employees in this case, their symptoms had progressed to a severe, life-altering stage.

The investigation by the HSE found that the risk assessment did not identify the actual exposure to vibration and had used out of date vibration data. The investigation also found there was no health surveillance in place until 2016 and employees were not made aware of HAVS and its symptoms. When symptoms were reported, the company had failed to act.

CRS pleaded guilty to breaching its duty under s.2(1) Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA) to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees at work. It was fined £36,667 and ordered to pay costs of £3,560.

Under s.37 HSWA, directors who bring about their company’s breach, whether actively or through their negligence, can also be prosecuted. Mr Thomas, director of CRS, pleaded guilty to his part in his company’s breach. He was given a twelve-week custodial sentence, suspended for one year, a twelve-week curfew and also ordered to pay costs of £3,560.

The very nature of the work carried out by this company exposed employees to vibration, yet employees were unaware of HAVS and its symptoms and no health surveillance was in place. If this employer had carried out a thorough risk assessment, the need for health surveillance would have been identified, enabling the employees’ symptoms to be picked up early on and appropriate control measures to be put in place to protect them.

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